Recently, visiting the Five Myles gallery located on St Johns Place, just off of Franklin Ave, I witnessed a group of young musicians and visual artists converge on a singular opportunity to occupy a space, inviting the viewer to slip into an immersive audio-visual experience. At Five Myles, the group of artists behind the aptly named, “Ashcan Orchestra,” opened up the show; on the main-stage would be what the composer Jonah Rosenberg labeled as an “electro-acoustic chamber opera,” under the title of “Ode to Jackeen.”
The chamber opera, consisting of four musicians on various instruments, including percussion, flute, acoustic guitar and violin, combines the Ensemble Sans Maître, with the composer’s vision for a performance based on counter-cultural, beat author Kenneth Patchen’s “The Journal of Albion Moonlight.” But, you may ask, a bit facetiously, where does the opera come in? Well, accompanying this tribe of art school experimentalists is a singular feminine figure, tall, lithe and hauntingly evanescent; from this figure, the operatic tremolo issues, charging the entire piece with a shocking Gothic flare of tradition, in the service of a neo-expressionist cacophony. More on this later, but first to give a little more detail on the opening performance and the inspired Five Myles program that makes events like this possible.
Five Myles gallery, as they express in their mission statement online, works with the local community in midtown Brooklyn where they are situated. Local artists and musicians during the summer season are allowed to invade the gallery space with absolutely no charge, putting on unique, experimental performances, exhibits and concerts for anyone who shows up. This is something that they call the “Space Program,” and it was this program that brought this extraordinary group of young artists together.
Now to go into further detail on the opening performance, the Ashcan Orchestra,” takes this traditional label at its very root, to orchestrate, what they achieve is a simultaneous orchestration of sound, light, rhythm and movement. In this performance one first encounters the totemic like structure that they’ve crafted for the show: a cubic piece, rising to around four feet constructed with wood, lights and wire. Around this structure the artists group themselves with a collection of bells, xylophones, toys and objects, and so the sound begins and the lights fire off on the totem like some monstrous traffic light given consciousness. Producing a panoply of dissonant chords, vibrations and notes they build the sound to moments of discomfort, shocking the listener as if to shatter an innocent moment of childhood nostalgia. The entire performance ripples with dreamlike incongruity and creates strange audio-visual combinations that both stimulate and unnerve the viewer, an experience that I highly recommend.
Following the Ashcan performance, there comes the next re-evaluation and subtle deconstruction of traditional highbrow elitist cultural music formats, this was witnessed in the “Ode to Jackeen.” The performance began and it was immediately clear that this was not going to be a smooth harmonic display, a display of virtuosity by the musicians, yes, but in dissonant chords and jarring climaxes where the instruments seemed to almost shriek and jabber in unison with the persona of Joe Bobo. Images were projected onto a screen doubling as backdrop and stage set, as the ensemble played around the poetry inspired by the composer channeling wild beat lyricism. But aside from this, constant bits of narrative interlude would fall into place between operatic bursts and the convulsive notes of the ensemble.
This is where my interest was piqued, for on the whole there was an abstract and almost universalizing quality to the piece that rendered impressions of inner psychic torment, the surreal torpor of unconscious dreamscapes. However, this use of a narrative overlay pulled the piece together and gave it a substantive ground and context. Then it came to me, before me was a necessary continuance of Dada Theater, the amalgam of Dada’s symbolist poetics and anarchic style, overlaid into the beat generation’s project, driven by a wild denunciation of bourgeois morals and restrictive normative codes. Originally, this anarchic theater that took confusion, irrationality and the de-hierarchizing of fine art, feeding directly into an epistemological crisis over what art could be and who was authorized to produce it, was born of post-war tension and trauma. Here, we see that war has continued by any other means, for now it is the war of the self against the socialized norms encoded within, psychic trauma writ large.
Ultimately, this particular muse from the beat generation emerges from Burroughs’ dark corridors of the movement, that prose which attempted to capture the raw reality of mid-twentieth American subjectivity, a subjectivity constantly put upon by an ever more institutionalized and bureaucratized social-landscape. Joe Bobo our hapless character within the narrative skit is a Kerouacian “dharma bum,” a “desolation angel” simply trying to get a meal, get some kicks and explore the American roadways, but he is beset upon by sinister and sterile medical personnel representing the terror of the juridico-medical discourse that labels and apprehends all those that do not conform to a call for ceaseless productivity and middle-class norms. In this way, the sublime crescendos of the ensemble become Bobo’s psychological discontent, his strange medicated visions, and distorted hysteric hallucinations made manifest. This is an authentic channeling of the beat project and a worthwhile experience, if the ensemble reunites make sure to be in the crowd.